Anti-drone technology to be test flown on UK base amid terror fears
Unmanned aircraft primed specifically to chase and catch weaponised consumer drones will be taken for a spin in the coming months.
Anti-drone unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are to be taken for counter-terrorist test flights on a UK military base, E&T has learned.
It is understood they will be flown in exercises designed to simulate a real-life pursuit of a terrorist drone.
Police and the military are believed to be concerned about the prospect of terrorists modifying small, off-the-shelf drones to launch attacks on British soil.
Capturing drones using swarms of net-casting UAVs working in tandem is one of several options being considered by defence chiefs.
Developing radio frequency denial systems to create a forcefield-type wall around government sensitive areas could also form part of the longer-term strategy.
British engineering firm OpenWorks already manufactures the SkyWall 100, an anti-drone bazooka which launches a net at flying objects and parachutes them to the ground.
However, James Rogers, an expert in drone warfare who is associate lecturer at the University of York, predicted “non-kinetic options” would ultimately prove more effective than “blunt force” tactics.
“There are loads of different ways to bring down a drone,” he said. “It’s now about finding what is the most effective way to do it. If you shoot it down, well, what if it’s rigged as an improvised explosive device?”
On being told about the upcoming test flight event, he said: “There is a big debate out there at the moment about what the best way is to counter these small drones, whether they are used by hobbyists causing a bit of a nuisance or in a more sinister manner by a terrorist actor.”
The ISIL terror group has already used basic, easy-to-buy drones to carry out reconnaissance and drop bombs in the region of Mosul, where the Iraqi government is retaking territory from the self-styled caliphate.
US security services reportedly believe commercially available UAVs could in future be used by terrorists more widely to carry hazardous chemicals, radioactive material or grenades in Western cities.
Rogers told E&T: “We talk about precision warfare with regards to American drone warfare. This is kind of the other side of it. These are precision missiles. You can hone in on your exact target. Proliferation of these precision technologies is what this is.”
Forcing drone manufacturers to programme their machines so that they have pre-set areas within their positioning systems which they are barred from entering could be part of the answer to the conundrum, Rogers said, although he added: “You can always override that, so it’s a hard one.”
In the UK there are said to have been dozens of sightings in recent months of drones flying over sites deemed to be part of the country’s critical infrastructure.
It is not known if these were being flown by people harbouring harmful intent or just curious hobbyists.
One well-placed source said he believed there had been thousands of such incidents recorded so far. Enthusiasts who flew drones over military sites were “just morons”, he added.
A British air safety watchdog yesterday revealed how an RAF Chinook helicopter at an airbase in Hampshire was nearly downed after it came within 130ft of colliding with a drone. The person controlling the drone was never tracked down.
All agencies with responsibility for responding to emergencies are now factoring drones into their war games, according to Dave Sloggett, who runs exercises for the police, military and others.
“For the last nine months, every single exercise I’ve done for the emergency services has had a drone element in there somewhere,” said Sloggett, who has also authored a book on drone warfare.
Criminals have been known to use drones to carry drugs and mobile phones into prisons, over borders and even across the Straits of Gibraltar from Africa to Europe.
Dutch and French police have reportedly trained several different species of eagle to catch drones in their talons.
The Ministry of Defence is already pouring public money into developing so-called “biomimetic technology”, producing drones based on natural forms, apparently for the purposes of intelligence gathering in urban environments.
At the same time, the UK is hoping to capitalise on the economic and environmental benefits that could in future be reaped by having companies use drones to make deliveries.